Searching for a new progressive narrative

by Jared Milne. Posted June 5, 2012


In the last few years, commentators have remarked upon the narrative of Canada developed by the Harper Conservatives, emphasizing patriotism that supports the military, Tim Horton’s and the North. More recently we have heard calls for a new progressive narrative as an alternative to this Harper version.

What could form part of this narrative, and how could it gain a broader appeal with Canadians?

Much of the current conservative narrative concerns “freedom”, especially the freedom of markets that contrasts with the control that progressives supposedly want to exercise on Canadians through taxation and government programs. The truth is, though, that government services have in many instances increased the freedoms enjoyed by Canadians. Unemployment insurance allows them to feed their families when they are out of work, public education enables people fully to exercise their talents, safety regulations mean that people can work longer and be more productive, minimum wage laws have increased the purchasing power of the poor and socialized medicine allows Canadians to spend more of their money on items of their choosing. Canada’s social safety net has freed many Canadians to pursue their goals and exercise their talents.

A new progressive narrative must, though, make it clear that government action is not the only solution. Private action and enterprise are just as worthwhile. Indeed, society functions best through a combination of individual effort and collective action. Private donations and government programmes complement each other in helping the poor, while governments and markets compensate for one another’s weaknesses. The approach should be more nuanced than the “market-first” consensus of the current narrative.

There are real questions about the way in which the Harper Conservatives have managed the economy. A progressive narrative could point to the fact that the government did not foresee the recession in 2008, that the Conservatives have run up large deficits and that it was the Opposition that forced the Government to develop its Economic Action Plan to stimulate the economy. In addition, it is noteworthy that the regulations that prevented Canadian banks from suffering the same fate as their American counterparts were put in place not by Harper, but by previous governments.

A new progressive narrative could, therefore, challenge many of the stereotypes of progressive ideas and the people who advocate them, while also pointing out the weaknesses of many current conservative ideas and policies. In doing so, however, it should avoid blanket condemnations and insults, whether of conservatives, private business or any other group of people.

In the early 1990s, the Reform Party was often ridiculed for its policies, the implication being that its supporters were somehow un-Canadian. Many Western Canadians were offended by this: the attacks reaffirmed their support for the Reform Party as it became the Canadian Alliance and now the modern Conservative Party. At the same time, the stereotype developed that many progressives were hostile and insulting to anyone who disagreed with their agenda.

A new progressive narrative can not only debunk the negative stereotypes about progressives and counter the narrative of the Harper Conservatives, it can also help build a more positive dialogue in our country. Canadians frequently defy political stereotypes: Conservative voters show compassion for the poor and care for the environment, while Liberal, NDP and Green voters put in long hours of hard work and show entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, many entrepreneurs have run as Liberal or NDP candidates over the years.

A new political narrative that recognizes this and helps to bring us together as a country, rather than worsening the tensions that currently exist, would provide an extremely valuable service to Canada and to all Canadians.

Jared Milne is a policy researcher and analyst from Alberta with a strong interest in Canadian history, Canadian politics and Canadian public policy.